Madison—the capital of Wisconsin and the home of the University of Wisconsin Badgers—is often billed as an active, athletic town. But it's also a great place to bring your family. Whether you've got preschoolers, tweens or teens in tow, there's plenty to see and do including trails, zoos and boating.

Pandemic-related closures and restrictions may be in place. Please check destinations' websites before making travel plans.

1) Henry Vilas Zoo With a herpetarium, tropical rainforest aviary and children's zoo, plus giraffe and primate houses, a carousel and train, a trip to the (free!) zoo is always interesting and entertaining. Arctic Passage houses polar bears and seals.

Henry Vilas Zoo
| Credit: Focal Flame Photography

2) Governor Nelson State Park This spacious park on the northwestern shore of Lake Mendota features a sand beach, boat launch, playground equipment and more than 8 miles of trails, including one that circles Native American effigy mounds. In the winter, the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. (Indoor spaces and playgrounds temporarily closed due to the pandemic.) 

3) Olbrich Botanical Gardens Botanical gardens don't automatically equate with a fun kid outing. But Olbrich does a nice job mixing in enough interesting elements—such as a glittering Thai pavilion and a conservatory filled with free-flying birds—to keep young ones interested. And everyone loves the Holiday Express, a Christmastime flower and model train show.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

4) National Mustard Museum You'll find more than 5,600 types of international mustards on display, plus a sampling area, interactive learning kiosks and the MustardPiece Theatre. Best time to visit: National Mustard Day in August.

5) Madison Boats Rent kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards (SUP) and paddle boats at three locations around Madison. Also, look for special events such as lakeshore yoga, full moon paddles and ice cream boat floats.

Wingra Boats

6) State Street State Street links the Capitol with the University of Wisconsin campus. Seven blocks long, it's filled with one-of-a-kind restaurants and shops. Stroll down the street during summer and you might stumble upon a spray-paint artist creating an intricate piece or a sax player wailing away. Even when the weather turns chilly, State Street keeps hopping.

7) State Capitol (Currently closed due to the pandemic; check website for reopening updates) Older kids may enjoy one of the free tours at the State Capitol, while younger ones will be happy to walk around and peek at the Senate and Assembly chambers and impressive dome. In summer, head for the sixth-floor observation deck, which affords prime views of Madison.

State Capitol

8) MacKenzie Center Set on 500 acres of woods about 10 minutes north of Madison, this environmental center will keep your family entertained with a small exhibit of native animals, an 80-foot-tall observation tower, nature trails, a sawmill exhibit, logging museum and more. (Grounds and trails currently open; check website for reopening dates for indoor spaces and playgrounds.)

9) Madison Children's Museum (Expected to reopen in summer 2021) Sitting near the Capitol Square, the Children's Museum's nearly a dozen exhibits aim at kids of varying ages, like the Wildernest, a global village play space for kids 5 and under, and the Rooftop Ramble, a section of the building's rooftop with chickens, a crow's nest and more. Be sure to check out the 1883 log cabin behind the main building.